Sunday, September 20, 2009

Pentatonic Musings

When people learn that my first love in life is Country Blues, they are either disappointed or don’t know what to make of this fact. This is not so much because they dislike rural, pre-World War II Blues music, but more because they do not actually know what the term “Country” indicates, and have never even heard Country Blues. In fact, on various Facebook quizzes that I have urged friends to take, many of my peers have made it quite clear that they believe Garth Brooks is a Country Blues artist, whereas, in reality, he is not Country Blues or even Country.

Although the 1960s saw a rebirth of interest in original Blues music, 2009 is not 1969, unfortunately. This means that many young people know nothing of the music which shaped America. Though many Country Blues stars were past their prime during the Folk-Blues Revival (examples: Son House, “Sleepy” John Estes, Lightnin’ Hopkins and certainly Bukka White), others were newly discovered artists who unleashed a fury of brilliant recordings. The men in the latter group include the extraordinary and otherworldly Robert Pete Williams, the aged but amazing Mance Lipscomb, and the last of the great Country Bluesmen, Johnny Shines.

By this point in time, Bukka White simply mumbled his lyrics, which almost never rhymed. His songs also went on forever in an aimless fashion. This is evident on all dvds on the GuitarVideos website which can be purchased at a good price. In contrast to this, Robert Pete Williams presented music which sounded nothing like anything that had been recorded in the 1920s or ‘30s. The sounds the man produced out of his guitar and his unusual voice were earth-shattering. It didn’t so much matter that his lyrics didn’t always rhyme; much like John Lee Hooker at his best, he could get away with doing such a thing.

During this point in time, we also had, of course, the phenomenal Mississippi Fred McDowell, the very best of the Hill Country Blues musicians. Lomax had recorded him doing “Shake ‘Em On Down”, accompanied by a kazoo player, in 1959. This was considered to be McDowell’s discovery.

Unfortunately, McDowell, Hopkins and others were often paired with younger artists and forced to work in group settings. This same situation also applied to Big Joe Williams. McDowell, Hopkins and Big Joe all worked best and sounded best when they worked solo. However, Johnny Shines was a man who was able to release great records in a band setting, either with Big Walter Horton or David Bromberg, as well as produce solo Country Blues records which were equal to, if not better than, the work of the overrated Robert Johnson.

In fact, in the African-American community, Johnson never had much of a following. His main contributions to Blues, as indicated by today’s Blues historians and not those of yesteryear, was the walking bass line which he had borrowed from Johnnie Temple, who took this technique from Boogie Woogie piano players and Leroy Carr. Johnson was also able to synthesize the music of Scrapper Blackwell, Skip James, Peetie Wheatstraw, Son House and Kokomo Arnold quite excellently. However, his vocals could not match those of House, nor could his slide playing ever equal that of Kokomo Arnold. Finally, we have young Robert’s conscious decision to use the last name, “Johnson”, and tell everyone that he was related to the older musician Lonnie Johnson, who recorded from the 1920s until his death forty years later.

Lonnie crafted countless Blues lyrics, was at home with playing Jazz with Eddie Lang or Elmer Snowden, crooned with the best of them in the 1950s and ‘60s, and came up with some of the most complex and awe-inspiring riffs when recording with Texas Alexander. Unfortunately, because Lonnie Johnson was not associated with the Devil and because he didn’t die young, the Blues audience of the 1960s took little interest in the man who literally invented Jazz guitar.

To refer back to Robert Johnson, due to the fact that he was the first Country Blues artist to have an LP exclusively devoted to one person, and because of the obsessive love which Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and others had towards Johnson, he is recognized today as the greatest of all Blues artists, which is a shame. He was certainly an excellent artist who created compelling lyrics and was a master of the slide guitar, but he did not equal Skip James, “Hacksaw” Harney, Bill Williams, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson or Bo Weavil Jackson on guitar! To look at Johnson’s music fairly, we must forget all about him for a year or two, abandon any thoughts about the legends surrounding him, and then listen to him as if hearing him for the first time. This will allows us to fairly assess his music, though this is a very difficult task.


mudcatz said...

Excellent post, HardLuck! It is a shame that the pre-war country blues receives more lip service than solicitude--to the point where I feel that Robert Johnson has become, to the mainstream perception, the stand-in for pretty much all of the old (especially) Delta players. I love Robert's music unequivocally, yet I would be the first to agree that he's been over-rated.

I've always been a "straight, no chaser" kind of bluesfan (which is why, my affection for a lot of Burnside's work aside, pretty much all his fusion/Possum work leaves me flat. On any given day, I'm more likely to spin Robert Petway or Ishmon Bracey than I am R.L.)

Lately Blind Lemon Jefferson's been blowing my mind. While I've spun some of his sides for years, these last couple months, he's been putting the smack down on me.

And then there's Son House. I agree he was "past his prime" (and showing the ravages of alcoholism) during hs '60's revival, though that he could remain that powerful is testimony to his strengths as a bluesman. The '65 Columbia sessions are what turned me out on Son and I never looked back...though I'd say those recordings ain't a patch to his 1930 Grafton sessions--or to the '41/'42 Lomax sessions, which I personally feel represent one of the pinnacles of pre-war blues recording.

I've been an ardent blues student for nearly a quarter century and part of that fuel is constantly discovering faces and music that's, well, been there all along. The pre-war country blues is a universe full of stars and anomalies...and some of the finest examples of why so many of us have come to believe that "blues is truth." The minimalism of the country blues musicians could often capture in 12 bars what many novelists cannot do in volumes.

Again, HardLuck, great post!


mudcatz said...

Hey HardLuck,

Also, if you're looking to turn some folks on to some GREAT pre-war blues, you might want to keep your eyes out for When the Levee Breaks, a 4-disc compilation of mostly rare and obscure blues sides, which includes both of Son House's "recently re-discovered" sides from his Grafton session, "Mississippi County Farm Blues" and "Clarksdale Moan," which features Willie Brown on second guitar.

All 4 discs are utterly mint. Bluestown had them a while back, but it appears Bluestown has had the plug pulled. I'll keep an eye out for you if you've not already got these.

Peace, Mudcatz

Hard Luck Child said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Mudcatz! I'll keep an eye out for that 4 disc set.

Blind Lemon was amazing! The only guy I've heard play Blind Lemon's guitar parts correctly is Paul Geremia, who is probably the greatest Blues fingerpicker alive today. He also does some obscure stuff like "Rising River Blues" by George Carter. I think it was Carter's slide + an echo in the studio that gives that record this bizarre, dream-like quality.

I agree that there are all these obscure artists out there who we don't know about- Willie "61" Blackwell, Alex Moore, Luke Jordan, Richard "Rabbit" Brown (who had the voice of an Irish tenor and gave us "James Alley Blues", one of the greatest things in history), volumes of Bill Gaither and his breathtaking lyrics, Bo Weavil Jackson's insanely frantic guitar playing, etc.

You are right about House. Even though his guitar skills had deteriorated by the '60s, his singing was beyond moving. It wasn't singing, quite frankly. He put his entire body and all of his energy into those lines he'd sing. That's why Rory Block can do a great Son House tribute album (and I'm glad she did) but just can't sing like Mr. House.

At this point in time, I don't know what to think of Johnson. "From Four Til Late" is brilliant and comedic. "Come On In My Kitchen" and "Preachin' Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)" are top notch. Then there is "(I Believe I'll) Dust My Broom", which isn't all there lyrically and is a bit stale, and his "Sweet Home Chicago", which just isn't as good as any of the takes of the song that Johnny Shines did. The lyrics to "Malted Milk" are great, but it's obvious that Robert is copying the older and better Lonnie Johnson. As I've said before, I think Robert's greatest strength was in his ability to synthesize. Aside from 4 or 5 brilliant original compositions, he was mainly a synthesizer (no, not the stupid instrument that was so popular during the '80s haha).

I feel that there are still some great artists who can do Country Blues; John Hammond, Rory Block, Corey Harris. Unfortunately, Harris wants to do Rap and other things. Alvin Youngblood Hart is the only guy who I'd say fits in with the old-timers. I think he's that damned good when he wants to be. The way he phrases his lyrics makes him sound like an original and not an imitator. Samuel James is a guy who isn't quite Country Blues, but is almost a songster. He writes his own material and most of it is wonderful.

If there is anybody who doesn't believe Blues is Truth, play the first 20 seconds of Texas Alexander and Lonnie Johnson doing "Levee Camp Moan" for them=)

mudcatz said...

Hey HardLuck... It's pushing 5:00am and I've been working thru the night. My brain's swiss cheese at the moment, so I'll have to reserve choking your comment section with my feedback on this country blues discussion for a bit. Putting Robert Johnson "in his proper context" is one of my favorite topics. Just not this a.m.

But one thing I did manage to accomplish was realizing (after 2 days of poking around on the internet) that the "When the Levee Breaks" box set was still on my old hard-drive. It then just became a matter of uploading them anew. Full scans included.

"When the Levee Breaks--Mississippi Blues--Rare Cuts, 1926-41" (how's that for a long-winded title?)

1.Cottonfield Blues Part. 1 (Garfield Akers)
2. Bedside Blues (Jim Thompkins)
3. Mississippi Bottom Blues (Kid Bailey)
4. Poor Boy Blues (Sam Butler)
5. I'm Leavin' Town (William Harris)
6. Hittin' the Bottle Stomp (Mississippi Jook Band)
7. Last Kind Words Blues (Geeshie Wiley)
8. Third Street Woman Blues (Blind Willie Reynolds)
9. Muddy Water Blues (Freddie Spruell)
10. Fare Thee Well Blues (Joe Calicott)
11. That Won't Do (Arthur Petties)
12. Four O'clock Flower Blues (Willie '61' Blackwell)
13. Evil Devil Woman Blues (Joe McCoy)
14. The Jail House Blues (Sam Collins)
15. Black Spider Blues (Robert Lockwood)
16. Traveling Riverside Blues Take 1 (Robert Johnson)
17. Baltimore Blues (Charlie McCoy)
18. Down the Big Road Blues (Mattie Delaney)
19. You Scolded Me and Drove Me (Mississippi Bracey)
20. Milk Cow Blues (Freddie Spruell)
21. Ten Pound Hammer (Mose Andrews)
22. Noiseless Motor Blues (Willie '61' Blackwell)
23. Jailhouse Fire Blues (Buddy Boy Hawkins)
24. 4A Highway (Freddie Spruell)
25. Time Has Done Got Hard (King Solomon Hill)
26. Mississippi County Farm Blues (Son House)
27. When The Levee Breaks (Joe McCoy)
28. Ninety Nine Blues (Blind Joe Reynolds)
29. Snake Doctor Blues (Jelly Jaw Short)
30. Little Girl in Rome (Otto Virgial)
31. It's Cold in China Blues (Mississippi Moaner)
32. Bald Eagle Blues (Willie '61' Blackwell)
33. Boodle-De-Bum Blues (Bogus Ben Covington)
34. Bull Frog Blues (Willim Harris)
35. Dangerous Woman (Mississippi Jook Band)
36. Shaggy Dog Blues (Buddy Boy Hawkins)
37. Devil in The Lion's Den (Sam Collins)
38. Quarrellin' Mama Blues (Arthur Petties)
39. Devil And My Brown Blues (Sam Butler)
40. Take a Little Walk with Me (Robert Lockwood)
41. Last Time Blues (Charlie McCoy)
42. Dough Roller Blues (Garfield Akers)
43. The Crowing Rooster (Walter Rhodes)
44. Motherless Child Blues (Elva Thomas & Geeshie Wiley)
45. Married Woman Blues (George Torey)
46. She's Young and Wild (Willie '61' Blackwell)
47. Cherry Ball (Mississippi Bracey)
48. Bad Notion Blues (Otto Virgial)
49. Don't Cry Baby (Freddie Spruell)
50. Rowdy Blues (Kid Bailey)

(Hmmm..too much for one comment...)

mudcatz said... we do this in two parts, ha!

51. My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon (King Solomon Hill)
52. Snatch It Back Blues (Buddy Boy Hawkins)
53. Machine Gun Blues (Willie '61' Blackwell)
54. Revenue Man Blues (Arthur Petties)
55. Mr. Freddie's Kokomo Blues (Freddie Spruell)
56. Over to My House (Geeshie Wiley)
57. Barefoot Blues (Jelly Jaw Short)
58. Jumpin' and Shoutin' Blues (Garfield Akers)
59. Look Who's Coming Down The Road (Joe McCoy)
60. Traveling Mama Blues (Joe Calicott)
61. Leavin' Here Blues (William Harris)
62. Got the Blues About Rome (Otto Virgial)
63. Young Heifer Blues (Mose Andrews)
64. Skippy Whippy (Mississippi Jook Band)
65. Yellow Dog Blues (Sam Collins)
66. You Can't Keep No Brown (Sam Butler)
67. Tallahatchie River Blues (Mattie Delaney)
68. Stered Gal (Mississippi Bracey)
69. Motherless And Fatherless Blues (Charlie McCoy)
70. Don't Misuse Me, Baby (Willie '61' Blackwell)
71. I'm Gonna Train My Baby (Robert Lockwood)
72. Out On Santa Fe Blues (Arthur Petties)
73. It's Hard Time (Joe Stone)
74. Your Good Man Is Gone (Freddie Spruell)
75. Cold Woman Blues (Blind Joe Reynolds)

76. Clarksdale Moan (Son House)
77. Adam and Eve in The Garden (Bogus Ben Covington)
78. Lonesome Man Blues (George Torey)
79. Leaving Home Blues (Walter Rhodes)
80. Loving Lady Blues (Sam Collins)
81. Early Mornin' Blues (William Harris)
82. Number Three Blues (Buddy Boy Hawkins)
83. Tell Me Baby (King Solomon Hill)
84. Little Boy Blue (Robert Lockwood)
85. Cottonfield Blues Part. 2 (Garfield Akers)
86. Chalk My Toy (William '61' Blackwell)
87. Barbecue Bust (Mississippi Jook Band)
88. Two Times Blues (Arthur Petties)
89. Back Door Blues (Joe Stone)
90. Way Back Down Home (Freddie Spruell)
91. Skinny Leg Blues (Geeshie Wiley)
92. Meat Cutter Blues (Joe McCoy)
93. Mississippi Moan (Mississippi Moaner)
94. Married Man Blues (Blind Willie Reynolds)
95. Jefferson County Blues (Sam Butler)
96. Rampaw Street Blues (Willie '61' Blackwell)
97. I'll Overcome Someday (Mississippi Bracey)
98. Good Boy Blues (Arthur Petties)
99. Grand Daddy Blues (Jelly Jaw Short)
100. Let's Go Riding (Freddie Spruell)


Post 'em if you want or dig 'em for yourself. It's the least I could do for you turning me onto Shirley Griffith and that slam-dunk of a Kansas Joe McCoy disc.

Hope you're well.


Hard Luck Child said...

Thank you so much, sir! I'm looking forward to the Spruell and the Jelly Jaw Short.

I'm glad you liked that great Kansas Joe disc. Did I upload both Griffith albums or just one? Let me know!

And I'd love to hear your opinions on Robert Johnson. I feel like talking about Country Blues without talking about Johnson has become like going to church without hearing about Jesus Haha

Hard Luck Child said...

The only problem is that, in reality, Johnson is more like a disciple than Jesus, if you follow my silly analogy!

Does this make Henry Sloan John the Baptist? Haha